These days, Solomon Asmelash is busy raising money for “charity causes”. Solomon says he is in a campaign to save poor and vulnerable children from premature death and devising strategies for using his and his friends’ fame to cover the medical expenses of those in need. The TV personality established an NGO called Hebret Lebego in collaboration with figures such as actors Solomon Bogale, Girum Ermias, the US based web journalist and the regime’s apologist, Benyam Kebede (Ben), owner of the Ethiopia First website. The fundraising effort was featured several times in Solomon’s own TV show “እስማማለሁ አልስማማም” (a format copied from America’s Deal or No Deal) and was the subject of several local news stories. So far, the NGO never disclosed the amount of money collected and how much of the donations goes to the charitable works.
For many observers, Solomon Asmelash’s new adventure comes as a surprise, because charity and philanthropy has never been his strong point. Former colleagues at the Ethiopian Television mostly recall his towering ego, malicious tongue, selfishness, and changing political stance. Solomon has been absorbing criticism from sections of the society and journalists for his overt and unseemly activism on behalf of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 2005, when the regime was threatened with losing the forthcoming national election and the ever-increasing popularity of the opposition party, he partnered along with other personalities Zerihun Teshome and Mimi Sebhatu (the husband and wife media moguls who are now running Zami Communication) and launched a government-friendly newspaper called Eftin. The paper worked closely with the Minister of Information, Bereket Simoen who steered the state propaganda machinery to counter attack the opposition voices and defend the regime which was on the verge of collapse. Eftin was not functioning like traditional media platform but has been publishing secret documents obtained from the regime’s intelligence agency. At the time, members of the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) were unpleasantly surprised to see the paper publishing word by word all of their Council meetings and discussions, though the meeting was closed to journalists and the report was not being recorded on tape. Solomon was also the one going to the Central Prison to interrogate CUD leaders and members who were thrown into prison after the post-election conflict started to heat up. Solomon in an interview with Addisu Abebe of the Amharic service of the VOA said that his unabashed promotion of the regime wasn’t and couldn’t be a problem.
Back in the Derg’s time, at time when there was only television station, Solomon used to host the youth program called Le Watatoch and later another entertainment program 120. As high school dropout, his limited education made him determined to succeed, but also resulted in insecurity that remained evident throughout his career. At the time, he was heavily involved in politics, taking active part in the youth organisation, the Revolutionary Ethiopia Youth Association. After the change of the government, it didn’t take him long to come up with another hat, showing his ardent support for the newly arrived liberation movement fighters who hailed from Tigray region. Though Solomon was born and raised in Addis Ababa, he started asserting his Tigrayan origin apparently to curry favour with the new leaders.
While Solomon was working for the Ethiopian Television, he was an ordinary journalist and paid 700 birr per month, but in 1998 he was given the post to lead Shala Advertising agency, which was owned by the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray. This agency later became Mega and was and still is administrated by Azeb Mesfin, the wife of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Mega has been accused of involved in “the impropriety of mingling public, private and party-owned businesses.” Solomon, who claims his life has never been about “accumulating wealth”, is often accused of questionable personal financial dealings with Woizero Azeb and other prominent businessmen.
Solomon often seeks to please the powerbrokers. Few years ago, he made it a point to record and archive “the unprecedented and heroic acts of the Tigrayan People’s liberation front,” in film that he produced “Agazi Operation,” a film intended to show how “1300 Woyane freedom fighters” were freed in a fifteen minutes operation from the Derg’s prison in Mekele. The film was largely financed by party officials and described by one critic as “a delusional vanity project” was seen in many parts of the country free of charge. In recent You Tube video, Solomon recorded himself reciting an Amharic poem he penned waxing lyrical about the legacy of the late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi and his commitment to poverty eradication.
In a country where journalists who challenge the establishment end up in prison, Solomon is enjoying a spotlight as television star and a businessman. Among others, Solomon now owns a tour company and car renting agency, with five expensive Toyota Fortuner (powerful 7-seater SUV) cars, as he himself once vaunted to this writer. Solomon often goes to the United States for vacation, where he said he got the idea for the show “Deal, No Deal.” Solomon says he is preparing to establish his own TV station, along the way constructing an image as a philanthropist by appearing at charity events, asking others for money and at times making promises to give his own money at his own TV shows and interviews. But of course, signs of Solomon’s tendency for philanthropic works are not easy to come by. As matter of fact, various reports are questioning where donations to the NGO are going and Solomon’s business-like approach to fundraising.